The New Labin Cycle

authors Ivana Žalac, Margita Grubiša, Igor Presečan, Damir Gamulin
project Municipal Library Labin - conversion, Labin, Croatia
written by Emil Jurcan

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I entered the Municipal Library in Labin and stepped into a long, black hallway. I stopped for a moment, because the summer sun blinded me, and I was unable to see my way. When my eyes adjusted to darkness, I began to see the details – the black polished floor, the concrete walls painted black, the black magnet pictograms revealing the mining history of the area, pieces of the old, cracked ceramics on the walls of a former bathroom turned into an info-cafè, the mining memorial room, the presentation hall…


I walked along that black corridor for a long time. In the building formerly owned by Istarski ugljenokopi Raša (The Istrian Coal Mines of Raša) the memory is still alive. The color of the interior was selected for a reason. Labin is a town characterized by the blackness of its mining past; it is a basic element of its collective memory. Black are the shafts below that town where miners from different countries worked for centuries. Black is the coal they took out from the shafts. Black were their hands, black was their destiny.


Black were the shirts of the storm troopers who kicked them in 1921. Such frequent incidents of abusing workers dissatisfied with the conditions in the mine eventually resulted in the founding of the short-lived, but famous Labin Republic. It was a republic of miners and antifascists established on co-operative principles. It was extinguished by the military. Is the memory of that historical event still alive in Labin? Who remembers the miners of Labin, such as Giovanni Tonetti, Giacomo Macilis, Francesco da Gioza, Angelo Tose and, above all, Giovanni Pippan, who was, following the fall of the Republic, harassed in his home town so much he was forced to emigrate? He died in Chicago: hit by five bullets following an attempt to organize a union of bread transporters in that American city.


Black, like the hallway of the Municipal Library, was the tie of Mussolini’s state architect, Eugenio Montuori, who began planning a new suburb at the foot of the Labin hill in 1930s. Today, the suburb is called Podlabin, back then it was Pozzo Littorio. In the war year of 1942, only a year before the fall of the Mussolini regime, a new town built for 3.000 inhabitants was inaugurated. It was built primarily for the miners and their families. It was a settlement built according to the contemporary standards, crowned by a monumental square surrounded with eclectic buildings whose role was to celebrate the eternal Rome. The building of the Istarski ugljenokopi Raša, that houses the new Municipal Library, was an integral part of that plan. As an industrial building, it was spared the Roman eclecticism, so that the façade has retained its rationalist expression of the Italian architecture of the Fascist era until the present day. The building was, therefore, protected as a cultural heritage site together with the mining complex the Labinians refer to as Pijacal. The realization of the new Municipal Library is only the first phase of the planned reconstruction of the entire Pijacal complex into a multimedia center.


These were my thoughts walking through the dark hallway of the new Municipal Library. Interior design was guided by the miners’ memory, their lives, and the legacy of their work. That memory is, indeed, rich. What the interior looked like before the reconstruction, while the coal mine was still active can be seen in Boris Cvjetanović’s photographs. In 1987 he witnessed yet another great historical event in Labin. Then in Yugoslavia occured a riot which radically undermined the existing system. The workers of Ugljenokopi Raša went on strike, requesting self-management. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia reacted sternly, thus revealing a giant gap between demagogy and real life. Worker’s assemblies were held, attended by both, the miners and the inhabitants of Labin, in the, so-called, Marble Hall which today houses the Library’s reading room. For the full 33 days the Hall witnessed direct democracy at work. The speakers were Jovo Jovanović, Dušan Savić, Hadžib Peštalić, and many other heroes of the last generation of Labin miners. Are they also a part of the Labin memory? Is there a memory of the police arresting those people? How many nights did Hadžip Peštalić spend having been interrogated at the police station, only to return to his comrades in the Marble Hall in the morning?


Several days ago, on May 12, was the anniversary of the end of the famous Labin strike. Nobody celebrated it. Tonči Kuzmanić, a sociologist from Ljubljana, divided the area’s contemporary history into pre and post Labin strike. In a radio show titled Labin is Burning, on May 21, 1987, he stated that We are entering a kind of a post-Labin period that we can call a period rid of illusions or delusions.


Engrossed in these thoughts, I was walking down the black hall of the former miners’ bathroom. I turned towards the Marble Hall to have a look at the site of the worker’s plenums. Where was that place where history took a different turn? From the dark hallway I entered a brightly lit large hall with glass prism ceiling. The contrast was evident. Having gone through a lengthy preparation in the claustrophobic hallway of the Library, I was ready to approach the shining ambience of the Marble Hall. I cannot imagine a better function for the hall from a public reading room – only a place of knowledge is worthy of such a deep and rich memory. As I lifted my gaze towards the sky, clearly visible from the reading room, I remembered another of the numerous famous inhabitants of this Istrian town. Giuseppina Martinuzzi dedicated her life to the education and literacy of the workers in Labin and in Istria. She referred to the Workers’ Halls wherein they were emancipated through learning, as the friendly houses, temples of work and light, a starting point and a center of every socialist initiative.


The new and beautiful marble hall in Labin is the best continuation of the hundreds of years of emancipation. It has risen from the devastated post-industrial landscape in which Labin never felt comfortable. A new cycle of emancipation has begun in the same hall. Through books, as there can be no other way.